Patrick Shanahan, Lindsey Graham in heated exchange over Trump Syria withdrawal

February 20, 2019 GMT

U.S. lawmakers clashed with acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan recently at a briefing on the sidelines of a major security conference in Munich.

In a contentious exchange during the closed briefing over the weekend, Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, reportedly pressed the acting secretary over the Trump administration’s plan to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, and if he had been telling European officials that the pullout will be completed by the end of April.

Mr. Graham asked Mr. Shanahan, “Are you telling our allies that we are going to go to zero by April 30?”

“Yes, that’s been our direction,” Mr. Shanahan responded. The conversation was first reported in The Washington Post

The exchange led the South Carolina senator to declare himself an “adversary of Shanahan’s policy to support complete withdrawal from Syria,” a Republican official familiar with the conversation confirmed to The Washington Times.

Mr. Graham has been staunchly opposed to a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops in Syria since President Trump’s December announcement.

The official told The Times that Mr. Graham compared the abrupt Syria withdrawal to President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw all troops from Iraq in 2009, which critics say created the security vacuum that allowed the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, to flourish.

Mr. Shanahan said the Pentagon is preparing to combat a potential resurgence of ISIS in the region and will keep some U.S. troops elsewhere in the region after the withdrawal is complete, NBC News reported.

However, during the briefing, Mr. Shanahan, who faces an uncertain future over whether he will be nominated for the Pentagon job on a permanent basis, defended Mr. Trump’s plan to pull the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria in the coming days.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, who had previously questioned whether Mr. Shanahan was the right man for the job, walked back his comments in Munich, telling reporters, “I’d be happy to have [Mr. Shanahan] as the secretary of defense and would work with him very well.”

Mr. Trump has said he is “in no rush” to choose a permanent replacement for former Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, who resigned in part over the Syria withdrawal plan.

The president has even suggested that he at times prefers “acting” Cabinet officials because they give him more “flexibility.”